HL Deb 10 February 2004 vol 656 cc1043-5

3.10 p.m.

Lord Carter asked Her Majesty's Government: What is their view of the proposal to charge airline passengers a levy on each ticket to cover the cost of providing wheelchairs for disabled passengers when the proceeds of the levy will exceed the cost of providing wheelchairs.

Lord Davies of Oldham

My Lords, the setting of fares is entirely a matter for individual airlines. However, as a matter of principle, the Government welcome the recent ruling that the cost of providing assistance should not be passed on to the disabled passenger. That principle is enshrined in the Department for Transport's voluntary code of practice for the UK air industry and in the European Airline Passenger Service Commitment.

Lord Carter

My Lords, I thank my noble friend for that Answer. Is he aware that the wheelchair levy of 50p on every ticket that Ryanair is charging will raise £12 million per annum, which will far exceed the actual cost to Ryanair of providing wheelchairs—about 2p per ticket? Leaving aside the question of whether there should be a charge for providing wheelchairs at all, does my noble friend agree that the levy is a disgraceful example of using disability as an excuse for blatant profiteering? Should not the levy be referred to the Office of Fair Trading? The Ryanair website states: The amount of the levy will be continuously reviewed upwards or downwards to ensure that Ryanair collects only what is required to cover the provision of assistance at Stansted".

Lord Davies of Oldham

My Lords, Ryanair, of course, is not a British airline. Therefore, there is a limit to how much British law can influence and affect Ryanair. My noble friend has identified the key point, that originally the intention was to pass the cost on to disabled passengers. Following the court ruling, it has been suggested that the charge for each ticket should rise by 50p, when the actual cost of providing for disabled passengers may be only 2p per ticket.

Lord Forsyth of Drumlean

My Lords, why is this not the responsibility of the airport operators? Surely it should be for the British Airports Authority to ensure that passengers can be safely taken to their points of departure. It should not be left as a squabble between the BAA and the airlines. If the BAA can afford to provide free parking for Members of Parliament, surely it can afford wheelchairs for the disabled.

Lord Davies of Oldham

My Lords, the noble Lord has identified the fact that the legislation implemented by airports stops at the point at which the passenger embarks, is cared for on the aircraft and disembarks from it. The provisions of the draft Bill propose that the requirement should extend to the aviation industry and to the aircraft. Therefore, when my noble friend's committee has finished its pre-legislative scrutiny and we are able to consider the Bill, we shall consider extending the provisions to airlines.

Lord Morris of Manchester

My Lords, does not the court's decision in this deeply disturbing case reflect very high credit on the DRC and emphasise again the urgency of the need to enact the Government's new legislation on disability discrimination?

Lord Davies of Oldham

My Lords, I agree with my noble friend. The court case was clear that the commission was right to raise the issue, and it obtained a judgment in its favour. That demonstrates the excellent work that the commission does on behalf of the disabled. As my noble friend rightly said, the next stage is to ensure that we introduce measures to advance the cause of the disabled.

Lord Addington

My Lords, will the Minister give an assurance that the Government will use their influence and power to ensure that this sort of objectionable profiteering does not carry on and that disabled people are never again used as an excuse for upping the price of tickets?

Lord Davies of Oldham

My Lords, as I indicated in my original Answer, Ryanair is not a British airline. But, of course, the European Commission is also active in this area and proposes to introduce regulations to deal with the situation.

Lord Hughes of Woodside

My Lords, if Ryanair is unwilling to change its policy, might it not qualify for the accolade "Cheapskate airline of the year"?

Lord Davies of Oldham

My Lords, I am not sure that my role is to comment on the virtues or defects of particular airlines, but I think that in this case the slogan "no frills" is not a particularly advantageous advertisement.

Lord Campbell of Croy

My Lords, I begin by declaring an interest. Since World War II, I have been dependent on wheelchairs at airports. Can the Government make any suggestions as to how the levy is to be calculated?

Lord Davies of Oldham

My Lords, the Government's intention is not to introduce a levy, but to introduce a law and consequential regulations that oblige airlines to treat disabled passengers in a totally non-discriminatory way.

Lord Strathclyde

My Lords, with regard to the question of my noble friend Lord Forsyth, will the Minister give a clear answer? Do the Government believe that the airport operators, rather than the airlines, have a responsibility in this respect?

Lord Davies of Oldham

My Lords, under British law, the airport operators have a clear responsibility, which they fulfil, to care for disabled passengers in a non-discriminatory and helpful way. The problem is that the law does not extend to the boarding of aircraft, to passenger seats on aircraft or to disembarkation. Our proposed legislation, and that of the European Commission on behalf of all the European airlines, addresses that feature.